By Steven Norris
What’s in a meal? Is it merely about putting the proverbial fuel in the bodily tank? Is it about social interaction? Entertainment? Maybe even a temptation for some?
This past week, my wife and I watched Babette’s Feast, a Danish film that won the Academy Award in 1988 for the category of Best Foreign Language Film. The story revolves two women whose father pastored a devout Protestant community in a small seaside village. After his death, the daughters continue to serve the poor throughout the village.
A French woman, Babette, shows up in town as a war refugee, seeking a safe place to stay and offering to work as a housekeeper. After working for the women for fourteen years, Babette learns that she has won the French lottery (a friend renewed her lottery ticket every year). She uses all of the proceeds (ten thousand francs) to prepare a traditional French meal for the celebration of the deceased pastor’s 100th birthday.
The meal is exquisite! Though the members of the community are leery of giving into the earthly pleasure of food and drink, its effects on the little congregation are undeniable. Course after course, the walls of their heart are broken down and the meal elevates them to new insights and courageous interactions. Old grudges are forgiven, hidden wrongs are confessed, and romantic love is rekindled.
The resonance to the events of Holy Week are unavoidable, for we remember the sacred character of a meal shared among friends and family. We remember that this week is Passover — a meal that memorializes the deliverance of the Israelite people from captivity in Egypt. We remember the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. We remember how the early church in Acts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” We remember that the scripture culminates in the “wedding supper of the Lamb” described in the book of Revelation.
Each of these meals finds an echo in the feast at the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a story we’ve returned to time and again in the past few weeks. It is nothing less than a “eucharistic feast” (a meal of thanksgiving). The father “gives thanks” for the safe return of his lost child in the same way that the Church “gives thanks” for the ways that Christ has prepared a way for us to return home.
Likewise, Babette serves as a Christ-figure in the film, giving everything that she had in her possession to prepare a eucharistic feast of transformation. Her self-sacrificing gift opened the door to new ways of living, to forgiveness, and to the possibility of love. This week, if you have the chance to gather around the Lord’s table with a community, I pray that the beauty and simplicity of the eucharistic meal might open your heart to the possibility of an encounter with the Divine and the transformation that is sure to follow.